Lara Downes: Pianist-Entrepreneur-Innovator

Janos Gereben on January 15, 2013
Lara Downes
Lara Downes

Pianist Lara Downes dreams and acts big. On top of a cluster of projects (see below), she is bringing a new enterprise, called The Artist Sessions to Yoshi's San Francisco. Detailed schedule is still being formulated, but two events are already on tap:

  • Downes, with "EXILES' Cafe," 8 p.m., April 24
  • Christopher O'Riley, with "O'Riley's Liszt," 8 p.m., May 28

Future events include pianist Conrad Tao (2012 Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient, composer, violinist, explorer of repertoire); cellist Matt Haimovitz (a pioneer of the move out from the traditional concert hall), Gabriel Kahane (with a new project of pieces based on WPA texts), pianist Tony de Mare (with commissions called Liaisons, Imagining Sondheim from the Keyboard), and others. The Artist Sessions are planned as more than just concerts, according to Downes:

My vision in founding it is to create a space where artists and audiences can communicate in a personal way, where ideas and inspirations can be shared, and where music can breathe outside of conventional parameters while maintaining a commitment to the highest artistic standards.

As a pianist, one of my main goals in performance is to create a conversation among composer, interpreter and listener that stretches backwards and forwards to find context and relevance across time and place. Now, as a presenter, I'm hoping to expand that goal to encompass a range of artists and audiences.

Among Downes' ongoing projects:

EXILES' CAFE — a collection of 19th and 20th century solo piano works written by composers in exile (including Chopin, Korngold, and Paul Bowles), reflecting the longing of exile around the world and across generations. "Far from home but close to the heart, this music tells the story of the transformative journey of exile, from what is left behind to what is discovered ahead."

13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE GOLDBERGS — a set of 13 new variations re-imagining Bach’s Goldberg Variations, composed by some of America’s brightest living composers.

THE AMERICANS — "an American musical-vernacular celebration"

LONG TIME COMING — a multimedia homage to the legacy of Duke Ellington and the impact of music on American history, including film, spoken word, and a new work for piano and small jazz ensemble by David Sanford.

Conrad Tao rests up for his next concert Photo by Chris Buck
Conrad Tao rests up for his next concert
Photo by Chris Buck

The pianist is founder and president of the 88 KEYS® Foundation, a nonprofit organization that fosters opportunities for music experiences and learning in public schools; curator of the Young Artists program at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis, where she serves as Artist in Residence and host and co-curator of the Studio Classics series. Downes is also member of the Recording Academy Classical Music Outreach Committee, and Artistic Director of Music Programming at Opus 40 in Saugerties, NY.

She told Music News about her work:

The projects and events of my concert career over the last few years have brought me to some important understandings about how musicians and audiences can better interact and communicate so that the concert tradition can be healthy and energetic. I've learned a lot about what works and what doesn't, what really draws an audience into a deeper relationship with a performer, what can put our music in a new light for a seasoned music-lover or illuminate it for a brand new listener.
Gabriel Kahane, "songwriter, singer, pianist, composer, guitarist, and occasional banjo player," is part of the The Artist Sessions
Gabriel Kahane, "songwriter, singer, pianist, composer, guitarist, and occasional banjo player," is part of the The Artist Sessions

Of course my artist residency at Mondavi Center, which weaves together solo performances, collaborations with artists across genres, curatorship and hosting, audience development, and mentorship, has been a wonderful training ground and stomping ground. The broad scope of what I do at the Center has had huge impacts in what I do overall as an artist!

My experiences touring last year with my CD 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg were also tremendously formative/informative. Along with the circuit of festivals and recital series, I made a strong effort to bring the music to nontraditional audiences, which meant presenting concerts in alternative venues: art spaces, clubs, salons of many kinds, in cities from S.F. to Chicago to Toronto.

It was just a tremendous pleasure to connect with audiences made up of young people, newbie concert-goers, listeners attracted by the adventure of hearing something new in a space familiar to them, by the promise of an exciting night out. I realized that the ability to attract new audiences has a lot to do with simple aesthetics and atmosphere. When we take music out of a traditional setting, we open up new possibilities for people to socialize, relax, find a place to be that feels comfortable, find their own community.

During the past year I was asked to contribute to planning and strategizing discussions by some major presenters around the country, and those conversations have helped me crystallize my ideas about programming and presenting. In a conversation last Spring with the Board of a major piano festival in the NW, I talked with the members of the board (some serious music-lovers, some less informed) about what compels them to go out to concerts.

One member, who turned 80 last year, said "Well, I love going to the symphony because I know I'll see my friends there". That was a real catalyst in my thinking about attracting audiences to live concerts. Because the truth is that there isn't one audience for classical music — there are many. And we all want to be where our friends are. So I think that we should create as many spaces (physical and otherwise) as possible for various audiences to find community, to "see their friends there." For me, as a busy professional and a parent of two young kids, that means one thing. For a retired couple in their 70s, maybe it means something else. For a 20-something hipster, still something different.

The space I want to create for The Artist Sessions is a flexible one, where many groups of people can find their friends. An engaging space, a space for truly intimate encounters with artists who are working in especially compelling and thought-provoking areas of their discipline. A space for talk, food, drinks, friends and some of the best music — classical and beyond — happening right now! I'll be curating these evenings with an eye to giving a close-up look at each artist's current work, core focus, and musical landscape. I want audiences to come away with a real understanding of who the artist is, what drives him/her, and how that shapes the music.

Did you enjoy the article?

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest articles every Tuesday